ToquiNotes: State Tragedy Subject of Alum Scott Faris' Film, "Impossible Town," Airing Sept. 30 in Clarksburg

By Jeff Toquinto on September 23, 2023 from ToquiNotes via

Many know Scott Faris from his days at Bridgeport High School before he graduated in 2004 and left the area to pursue a career in the arts. He actually wrote a column for me, right here in Bridgeport, back in my newspaper days and – even then – had so much talent that he was the best writer we had as a teenager.
Many know Dr. Ayne Amjad as the former West Virginia Health Care Officer who worked with Gov. Jim Justice during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Amjad, it is safe to say, has never worked for me in any capacity, but I digress.
While I only have a connection with one of the two, most reading this likely have no idea Faris and Dr. Amjad worked together for the last few years on a project of Faris’ that will be on display beginning at 5:30 p.m. on Sept. 30 as part of the at the first-ever Mtn Craft Film Festival at the Robinson Grand Performing Arts Center.
Faris is the co-director, cinematographer, and co-editor of Impossible Town. According to its Web site, the story synopsis is as follows:
When her father dies unexpectedly, Dr. Ayne Amjad is thrust to the helm of a decades-long struggle to aid Minden, a southern West Virginia town beset by cancer-causing chemicals. Haunted by her father’s mandate to “help others,” Ayne hatches an audacious plan to relocate the town and bring closure to her father’s work.
After encountering initial resistance, Ayne takes her ambitions statewide, landing a high-profile role as WV’s state health officer. But the demands of her new position combined with her goal of moving Minden take a dramatic toll on her health. When deeply entrenched community narratives collide with emerging scientific findings about the town’s pollutants, Ayne must decide how much she’s willing to sacrifice to help the people of Minden achieve their goals.
The film, done with his colleague and co-director Meg Griffiths, is powerful. It has taken four years to get to this point and the complications this small Fayette County community of 250 people faces.
Getting to this point in his career does not surprise me. I am betting anyone who knows him or has worked with him will tell you the same.
Faris’ background is diverse and unique. It started with him attending NYU’s (New York University) Tisch School of the Arts, a performing, cinematic and media arts school. After leaving NYU, he taught 5th grade on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
Eventually, after doing additional work in the educational field, Faris co-founded Universe Creative with Griffiths. The business is a documentary-based production company based in Los Angeles. For good measure, the business does work with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the KIND Foundation – again, not surprised.
What is surprising is how this story with Dr. Amjad and the tiny town of Minden came to be. It started with Faris wanting to find a story in his home state that may have slipped through the cracks that proved to be powerful and poignant.
“We searched for a client to tell us an uplifting story in West Virginia, and we didn’t find a client, so we had to find one ourselves,” said Faris. “We put out feelers and almost immediately we were in touch with one of Ayne's high school classmates. He basically told us that ‘she is trying to move a town of people.’ Who wouldn’t be enticed by that tagline. It was such an interesting seed.”
The seed grew from there. It does not bloom, however, without Dr. Amjad agreeing to take part.
“We called her out of the blue in December of 2018. It was startling in the best way how generous she was with her time and her story because she really didn’t know us,” said Faris. “From there, we began at attempt to tell her story, her father’s story, that goes back decades ... We try to pay homage to those who started the advocacy for Minden so long ago."
A brief synopsis involves a business called Shaffer Equipment Company. Defunct for years, they were in the business of refurbishing transformers used in the coal mining industry. As part of the process, the company discarded a chemical known as PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls.
Products containing the chemical were discarded throughout the town as well as in Arbuckle Creek, the soil and more. It was burned in fireplaces in people's homes and also sprayed on dirt roads.
“The community is soaked in PCBs. At the time it was not thought to be a problem, but it was identified as a potential carcinogen. The evidence since then is that it is not good for the human body,” said Faris. “In defense of Shaffer, that data was not clear at the time that the produce was discarded.”
The result?
“There’s been a ton of cancer cases, a signifcantly concerning amount of cases, but it’s really hard to generate hard numbers,” said Faris.
There are several reasons for that beyond Minden’s current small population that is wildly diverse. The biggest is that in West Virginia, cancer-related deaths are recorded only where a person dies as opposed to where they spend their lives. In other words, a Minden resident who dies at Charleston Area Medical Center or J.W. Ruby Memorial would have their deaths listed as in Charleston and Morgantown, respectively.
“That factor makes it very difficult to present the numbers of deaths you could potentially tie to the PCBs in Minden, particularly with so many residents that have moved,” said Faris.
Tracking data is one thing. Spending portions of four years documenting tragedy - from death to struggles and more was something that proved difficult but kept Faris and his partner churning to complete the documentary - is another difficult endeavor.
“From the community members of Minden, the most obvious thing is the sense of loss and trauma. A very large component of this documentary is Ayne’s personal family and the losses they’ve experienced,” he said. “It’s quite gut-wrenching. It’s a heavy story that is bittersweet.
“You have this heroic figure who gives everything to help in trying to make this better … She sacrifices so much of herself that it is often difficult to watch her in this process,” Faris said.
While folks like me only know Dr. Amjad as the person speaking during Gov. Jim Justice’s COVID-19 press events with a smile and short and concise answers to media inquiries, Faris saw the real person.
“She is so committed to family and community. She is driven and has selfless motivation as a result of something her dad said to her as a kid,” said Faris. “He told them ‘The greatest thing to do is wake up and help others.’ She took that so deeply to heart. She modeled her adult life to that edict.”
As for the title of the documentary, “Impossible Town,” Faris said those viewing it will understand the constant evolution taking place. He said the advocacy work is an ongoing affair that will allow the viewer to understand there is not complete resolution, at times making things feel impossible to complete.
“You will see how complicated, and the nuances are, with the factors in Minden,” he said.
Professionally, Faris has been doing work for the past 15 years. He said he has made more than 100 short films. Impossible Town is the first feature length process he’s been involved with.
“This is, by far, the most personal thing I’ve ever made,” said Faris.
One other thing is personal. The documentary is making the West Virginia premier back in Harrison County. He said it was made possible through the effort of the folks involved with the Mtn Craft Film Festival.
“I’m so grateful to them for the platform and to come home,” said Faris.
The Sept. 30 date is the first showing in a regional tour that will also include four additional West Virginia cities. There will also be screenings in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. The hope, he said, is through these efforts the documentary will be displayed through larger outlets.
“The hope is to get picked up, but we’re pretty early in the distribution process by touring the film on the festival circuit to get it in front of as many people as possible,” said Faris. “We would love for it to eventually have broader distribution on a platform like Netflix or Hulu. We are also aware the market conditions are pretty tough right now.”

Impossible Town will be part of a full day of screening. The opening starts Saturday at 5:30 p.m. with the film, which lasts 93 minutes, beginning at 6 p.m. The Festival will run two days, beginning on Friday with multiple screening. You can read about them in the ticket information linked below.
Faris, Griffiths, along with Dr. Amjad and her family, will be in attendance. Following the film there will be a 15- to 20-minute question and answer session.
“We’ve made a film that is a tough watch, and it can make you uncomfortable with opposing realties,” said Faris. “We ask you bring an open mind.”
Click HERE for ticket information. Click HERE for the Impossible Town Web site. Click HERE to watch the trailer.
Editor's Note: Top photo shows Scott Faris and Dr. Ayne Amjad during a break from work on the film. The second photo is of the late Dr. Hassan Amjad, the Oak Ill physcian and Ayne's father, who passed in 2017 and led the crusade for Minden his daughter now carries. In the third image, sample soils taken require hazmat suits due to the nature of PCBs. Samples are taken from Arbuckle Creek as Faris films the work in the next photo. In the fifth image, Dr. Amjad, far left in red hat, takes part in a March in Linden honoring those who passed, those battling, the advocates for Minden, and the work still needing done. In the sixth image, Faris and Amjad are in the center of the photo as she meets to talk to residents of Minden. Seventh photo shows Faris getting a chance to do his craft in the place he calls home. Image below the editor's note is the film poster.

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